I suppose I could say that I’m feeling a bit numb, really, which may be better, or even more accurate, than saying that I’ve been too depressed or just too lazy to write this instalment. Yes, “numb” kind of covers it.
John and Eve had kindly offered to take me over to the farm where I was to take my place in the cortege, and we exit the house to a light drizzle which will persist all day. “Proper funeral weather”, I observe. The arms of my suit jacket are just a little too long, so I experiment with various hand positions on the way to make this less apparent. I arrive at Elm Dene Farm, as planned, in plenty of time for our scheduled departure at 11:30, and am thus regaled with several minutes of complaints concerning my other cousin, Sheila, who is deemed to have contributed bugger all to the organization of this somber proceding and is, indeed bloody late, which is deemed extremely disrespectful. “Not worth getting upset about, Jean”, I offer. “Oh, I’m not upset!”, she half snaps, becoming more agitated the while. “I won’t be losing any sleep over it”, I reply in an attempt to soothe.
We leave sans Sheila and her husband John, who will have to make their own way to the Crematorium, a decision it transpires they had already made since they are already there when we later arrive. This does little to temper Jean’s mood, since the proprieties apparently dictate that Harvey, Sheila and I, as mum’s closest relatives, should have ridden together in the car following the hearse. I idly wonder whether there will be a fight at the wake. The journey passes amid safe platitudes about how nice the car rides and comments about the weather, and I feel I keep my end of the dull chat up just enough to not be considered sulky.
Having been expecting, or told to expect, perhaps six people at the funeral, I am more than pleased to see a small crowd of 20 or 30 as we exit the car. Most of these people haven’t seen me (or I them) in fifteen years or more, and it takes me a moment in several cases to reconnect names to faces and to relationships. All three of Harvey and Jean’s kids are there with their respective spouses. Beverley’s husband, whose name sadly remains unremembered but who is a Good Bloke, is the first to look me straight in the eye, shake my hand and ask me how I’m doing, and also the first to utter a phrase I am going to hear several times over the next couple of hours: “I didn’t recognize you with the beard”. And here are Donald and Barbara (“Do you remember us?”), who used to visit mum many years ago and bring homemade fairy cakes which I remember as being very good, and whom I haven’t seen in probably 20 years. A few more hellos and handshakes are interrupted by Jean introducing me to the Rev. John Payne Cook, who is a very nice chap indeed, and indicates that we are ready to begin.
Harvey and Jean, myself and Sheila and John lead the procession to the seats, where we of course have reserved spots right in the very front row, just like Sally Simpson. The rest are haphazardly inserted behind, with mum’s best friend Ruby, now rather frail, accompanied by her daughter Anna in the row behind, a fact I shall become well aware of when the hymn singing starts. The coffin is carried in by the attendants and placed gently on the stand, and in accordance with respectful tradition, they all bow lightly to the casket as they step away. It is at this point that I begin to quietly cry.
Jean and Harvey seem to have done a fiercely efficient job with all the arrangements. The photograph which adorns the cover of the memorial service book is, amazingly, one I have never seen before, although I have several of mum when she was around the same age (late teens/early twenties). She’d also found a list of mum’s favorite hymns to choose from for the service, although managed to pick an opening hymn (O Lord My God) which I didn’t recognize at all. Since they were the ones who supplied the Rev. Payne Cook with the details needed for his address, I considered a number of factual errors had crept or were inserted in, including a remark that mentioned she’d been suffering from dementia since 2003 (2005 at a push is more like it), and the conspiracy theorist in me wonders if this is a deliberate ploy to gig the will, since I remember around then we’d discussed “what might happen”, and her specifically saying “Well, of course you’ll get the house”. By my guess, the new will was made up around ’01 or ’02. It’s still a guess because at this point its contents have still not been revealed to me, although I get the impression that everyone else around knows what’s in it. Ugh – bad thoughts to be having in the middle of a funeral.
As the Rev. continues his encomium I, with some tears still making their escape along my cheek, notice character similarities between mum and me. He notes that, although generally well-liked by many and loved by some, she wasn’t considered particularly sociable, a trait I’ve noticed increasingly in myself, and something which will surprise many who know me well. I often used to consider that there was an “Everyday Nic” and a “Convention Nic”, who might well have been thought of as two separate people, and might also help explain the happy coexistence of my alter ego “S V O’Jay” for those many years. This is notwithstanding an interlude in the mid-90s with an individual described by the Sainted One as “Baby Pictures Nic”, who made an appearance at a Novacon but proved to be a mere veneer over the Real Thing. Mum was described as not having many close friends, however, a situation which I am fortunate to say does not apply to me, though I wouldn’t be so crass as to name them here. In recent years it seems to take a lot to actually get me to go out and be sociable in public, though of course there isn’t exactly a pub on every corner where I live, and driving not being an option means that any trips out not for work tend to be of the mundane grocery shopping and movie rental variety. Add to this the fact that most if not all of my closest friends are in the UK, and this leads to an almost Warner-like existence spent, not writing letters, but spending far too much time basking in cathode rays, to the varying annoyance of BB, who nevertheless quite dislikes “Convention Nic”, I think. In hindsight, the quite excellent reportage of the Sainted One in his “write this down” Novacon vignette in Banana Wings many years ago perhaps documented the beginnings of an integration of “Convention Nic” and “Everyday Nic”, albeit into someone who is still a recognizable version.
The final hymn is one I most definitely recognize as one of mum’s favorites: The Day Thou Gavest, and I recognize Ruby’s voice from the pew behind, still quite strong and tuneful despite her increased frailty. It is a fine voice which she used to entertain on many occasions in the past, and I am happy that it is raised here, knowing that mum would be pleased herself. Commendation, committal and blessing follow, and inevitably we exit to Amazing Grace, not given to eye-rolling triteness, but in the knowledge that this was also one of her very favorite tunes. Outside in the continuing drizzle it appears that I am the only smoker in the entire party, (although Jean had succumbed to the need for “a couple of puffs” before we left the farm) distancing myself in the designated area. I am approached and consoled by several people, including my Aunt Muriel and cousin Nicola. Muriel married my father’s brother Maurice, who I am told was not able to leave the house as he, too, is housebound and awaiting hip operations. I am a little surprised to see Muriel in particular. She is a very small woman who always left me with the impression that she might break any minute, but it seems the years have given her a kind of wiry toughness. Nicola, on the other hand, is what we used to call “raw-boned”, a six foot Amazon who in earlier days could have been the typical farm girl who puts the lads to shame by carrying twice what they can. She is wearing her work ID badge, which identifies her as “Nicky”, and I tell her how pleased I am that she’s taken that name on since it’s something I’ve always hated to be called. Soon enough, I am summoned back to the car as we must now make the trip back to Hitchin to the Firs Hotel, where a spread has been laid on.
As I write these words (on Friday morning), John has already asked me what time I’d like to go over to the farm to do the farewell with Harvey and Jean, try to see if I can get a copy of the will, and also hopefully hit them up for some or all of my plane fare. “I’ll call first to make sure they’ll be there”, I tell him. As the morning draws on and he pops back downstairs from his office for something, “I might leave it till tomorrow”, I say. “Oh? Why’s that?” “Because this is taking a long time”. “Ah. Right.”
Not only am I the only person smoking, I am also the only person drinking for a while until Harvey decides he might like a couple of Bacardi and cokes. I content myself with a modest succession of glasses of Stella, while the tea and coffee proves much more popular with the rest of the assemblage. Dutifully, I spend a few moments with everyone, thanking them for turning out, sharing the occasional reminiscence and, disconcertingly, echoing “Lovely to see you”. There is too much food, Jean frets, and I do not help the situation by having very little appetite. Quite quickly, it seems, people begin to take their leave, and several allude to the fact that I will likely not see any of them again soon, if ever. Those left are going back to the farm to regroup, and I am asked if I am coming along. I ask Harvey if there’s any paperwork I need to see or sign or anything, a broad hint I thought, which is dismissed with a demeanor of mild surprise. “Perhaps you’ll come and see us before you go”, says Jean. I remember playing on the farm with their son David, who is a year or two younger than me, often during our summers, although in later years I became closer with Beverley, who is just a little older than me and is mum’s god-daughter. I dated her cousin Jane for a while, which meant we were socializing together quite a bit at the time. Declining the trip to the farm on the general grounds that it makes more sense for me to walk to Hitchin station from the Firs than get a taxi from the farm, several miles out of town, I walk to the foyer with my arm around Bev as we share a smiling moment. It has been genuinely good to see her. Perhaps portentously, I leave out one door as everyone else departs through another, and emerging into the still-drizzling day I begin the mental process of shutting it all down, and feeling overly conspicuous in my suit and tie walk to the train station, where I inevitably miss the Hertford North train by four minutes, having stopped in the Nightingale for a pint of Guinness.